H-Diplo Article Review 953 on Yordanov. “Warsaw Pact Countries’ Involvement in Chile from Frei to Pinochet, 1964-1973.”

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H-Diplo Article Review 953

26 May 2020

Radioslav A. Yordanov.  “Warsaw Pact Countries’ Involvement in Chile from Frei to Pinochet, 1964-1973.”  Journal of Cold War Studies 21:3 (Summer 2019):  56-87.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1162/jcws_a_00893.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Michael E. Neagle | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Leesa Rasp, University of Missouri–St. Louis

The election of Salvador Allende to the office of President in Chile in 1970 sent shock waves through a world that was in the midst of the Cold War. Allende’s unexpected victory left both eastern- and western-aligned countries to rapidly decide upon the best approaches for economic and political relations with the new president, who had clearly stated his intentions of turning Chile into a socialist country.  While the strenuous objections of the United States to Allende’s “Vía Chilena al Socialismo” (Chilean Path to Socialism) are well known, the reactions of Soviet-aligned countries are less frequently analyzed.  Radioslav A. Yordanov’s compelling historiography contributes to filling this gap in the existing literature by examining the relationship between the USSR and Eastern bloc countries and Chile during a turbulent decade in that country’s history.

Beginning with the Eduardo Frei Montalvo administration and tracing relations through the first years of the Pinochet dictatorship, Yordanov describes the political and economic ties between the Chilean government, the USSR, and the Warsaw Pact countries (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic [GDR], Hungary, and Poland). Yordanov uses original documents from diplomatic and Communist Party channels, as well as published primary materials from the U.S. and the USSR to examine the official approaches the Eastern bloc countries took towards Chile in this era.  He argues that the use of these documents “cast[s] more

light on the complex international repercussions of Allende’s victory . . . [and] they paint a more nuanced picture of the events in Chile in the decade preceding Pinochet’s violent ascent to power” (58-9).  The article presents more insight into involvement with Chile by the Warsaw Pact states, and “also the circumstances that prevented the Soviet-bloc states from developing more-comprehensive political, economic, and cultural relations [with Chile]” (59).

Frei’s administration attempted to deepen relationships with the USSR and the Eastern bloc countries, as part of a regional trend towards the left in Latin America at the time.  Yet Yordanov notes that “[b]oth Chile and the East European Warsaw Pact states lacked the resolve to promote political and economic relations” (61).  The author explores the relationship between Chile and Poland in particular, revealing that while Poland thought that Chile’s “open door” diplomatic policy towards the Eastern bloc states was a posture, Frei simply wanted to use the Soviet-allied states as political leverage against the West (63). This section provides solid information and analysis based on the original documents, demonstrating that Czechoslovakian officials believed that Chile was not yet ready for socialism.  Firm U.S. pressure on Chile meant that economic ties were not developed with Czechoslovakia, which prevented Chile from developing a closer relationship with the Czechs (63).  While diplomatic relations were established and strengthened during Frei’s time in office, Yordanov concludes that “[t]he Frei government’s decision to open Chile to the Eastern bloc amounted to little more than political rhetoric” (64).  The incoming socialist administration would have better luck in deepening these relationships.

Allende sought out not only deeper political and economic ties with the USSR and the Soviet-bloc countries, he also sought significant financial support in order to neutralize the influence of the U.S. in the region and reinforce Chile’s autonomy (67-8). This was a central component of Allende’s foreign policy: Allende hoped that creating strong economic ties and increasing trade with the Warsaw Pact countries would free Chile from its dependence on the “‘imperialist’ states” (68).  Chile was still economically dependent on the United States, and the U.S. had continued to give Chile much technical and financial aid up to the election of Allende.  Officials in the Eastern bloc states, however, were doubtful about the viability of Chilean socialism, and the USSR was not interested in lending a lot of economic support.  Moscow preferred to develop mutually beneficial economic ties, rather than investing in Chile as a kind of protectorate in South America (69).  Allende focused mainly on the USSR in his search for significant economic support, giving the Eastern bloc countries less attention.  Yordanov explains why Moscow was hesitant to support the new Chilean administration, writing that the Soviets had many doubts about Allende as a leader, noting his conflicts with members of his own party and coalition, and his failure to win support from the far left in Chile (72). Thus, while the USSR was ideologically inclined to support Chile, the pragmatists won out, and Allende did not receive the significant economic support he had hoped for (73).

Yordanov continues with a well-researched analysis of the Warsaw Pact countries’ evaluation of the downfall of Allende in Chile.  The hesitancy of Moscow to become more deeply involved with the new socialist regime was caused by concerns that “full-scale support for radically anti-imperialist regimes would trigger Washington’s further involvement across the continent, including possible action against Cuba” (77). There were also significant worries about the internal cleavages in Chile as they related to the possible success of Allende’s project (76-77).  This section of the article relies heavily on original documents from Moscow, without much information from the other Warsaw Pact states.

The article also explores the first years of the Pinochet dictatorship and the debate among the Soviets and the Eastern bloc countries about whether to cut diplomatic ties with the Pinochet regime.  The USSR decided to suspend diplomatic relations first and Brezhnev stated the position of the USSR publicly, giving the allied countries little choice but to follow suit (80).  The Eastern bloc countries and the USSR provided significant support for exiles and political refugees from Chile, in particular for Luis Nicolás Corvalán Lepe, the head of the Communist Party in Chile, who had been imprisoned after the coup. Officials from the Warsaw Pact countries exerted much effort and formulated several plans to get Corvalán freed, and ultimately came up with a successful diplomatic solution (83-84).

Yordanov’s article is a well-written, well-researched historiography of the official relations between Chile, the USSR, and the Eastern bloc countries.  It provides much insight into the motivations behind the decision by the Warsaw Pact countries to provide minimal support to Chile under its first socialist president.  Chief among the concerns motivating the hesitation in supporting the new regime was the significant involvement of the U.S. in Chile.  The USSR led the way in decision-making for the bloc as a whole, and the Eastern European countries followed Moscow’s lead. While the article provides excellent information about the decision-making processes of the Eastern bloc countries, it does rely heavily on information from Moscow.  This is not a criticism, however, as it is clear that the countries coordinated their responses, following Moscow’s lead, when deciding on economic and diplomatic relations. Overall, the article is a strong contribution to the existing literature about the relationship between Chile and the East during Chile’s experiment with socialism.  The existing literature has gaps in this area, which is not well-explored, and Yordanov situates his historiography well.  The article provides strong support from original documents from the Eastern bloc countries and the USSR for its assertion that the Soviet-aligned countries were hesitant to support Chile due to their doubts about the odds of Allende’s success.  Yordanov’s historiography provides an excellent jumping-off point for further exploration of the relationship between the Eastern European countries and Chile during this era.


Leesa Rasp holds an MA in International Relations and an MA in Political Science.  She is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and is currently finishing her dissertation titled, “Student Movements, Politics, and Policy in Chile, 2001–2012.” Her research interests include Chile, social mobilization, democratization, and student mobilization in Chile.